- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — Frank Robinson was asked yesterday whether he has come up with a short list of candidates to take over the Washington Nationals’ leadoff role now that Endy Chavez has been sent to the minor leagues.

“Yes, it’s about this big,” the manager said, holding his thumb and index finger less than an inch apart.

Robinson might have been too generous. Four days removed from their season opener in Philadelphia, the Nationals appear to have no choice to bat leadoff other than left fielder Brad Wilkerson.

Not that Robinson isn’t open to other possibilities. He plans to spend the final days of spring training mixing and matching different lineup combinations to see whether any other viable options emerge. But based on the way Robinson spoke yesterday, it doesn’t sound like he’s expecting that to happen.

“I could put anyone in the lineup up there,” he said. “But I want someone I can feel comfortable enough with to have him out there on a regular basis. Not for one game or two games. It’ll be somebody I feel like can handle the job over a long period of time.”

The only player on Washington’s roster who fits that description is Wilkerson, who gets on base more than any other player despite his prodigious power and high strikeout totals.

The husky outfielder hit a career-high 32 homers last season in Montreal and likely would approach 100 RBI if he batted fifth for a full season. That’s where he has hit all spring, and that’s where the club would prefer he stay.

But Chavez’s surprising demotion Tuesday changed everything. With no natural leadoff hitters left on Washington’s roster, Wilkerson seems destined to be at the plate Monday for the first at-bat in Nationals history.

“I told you guys at the beginning of spring training, you never know until Opening Day’s here,” said Wilkerson, who expressed his desire to bat fifth on the first day of camp. “I don’t know how to explain it. I guess I’m used to it by now.”

Similar circumstances a year ago forced Robinson to use Wilkerson atop his lineup 107 times, and he responded by reaching base at an impressive .382 clip from that spot. He had a .374 on-base percentage overall in 160 games.

Given his power potential and lack of blazing speed, Wilkerson is hardly a leadoff hitter in the mold of Florida’s Juan Pierre or Baltimore’s Brian Roberts. But he’s the only National who has proved he can handle the job, and he certainly has the support of one of the organization’s key decision makers.

“I personally think Brad Wilkerson is one of the better leadoff hitters in the league,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “He gets on base. He walks. He works the pitcher. No question, on this roster, he’s the best leadoff hitter we’ve got. Now, do you lead him off or keep him [in the fifth spot]? That’s the decision Frank’s going to have to make. But there’s no question in my mind that he can do the job.”

Wilkerson has yet to bat leadoff this spring, and Robinson said he might not before Opening Day. The manager won’t decide until he wakes up who will bat first today against the Florida Marlins in Jupiter, Fla.

Don’t expect Cristian Guzman to get many more looks, though, not after the shortstop’s 0-for-7 performance leading off the last two days and an 0-for-21 showing over his last six games.

Guzman, perhaps the only reasonable alternative to Wilkerson, is struggling through a horrific slump at the plate, one that has seen his spring batting average plummet from .448 a week ago to .260 after yesterday’s game.

“He seems to be swinging and missing a lot more,” Robinson said. “It looks like he’s been a little impatient and not waiting for his pitch. And he’s paying the price.”

Guzman, whose .309 on-base percentage last season in Minnesota was actually nine points worse than Chavez’s mark, has been Washington’s No.2 hitter most of the spring. He spent the last two days leading off, with first baseman Nick Johnson behind him, but the 26-year-old shortstop ultimately could be dropped to eighth if he continues to struggle.

“I feel comfortable everywhere,” Guzman said. “I’m the same player. It doesn’t matter where I hit.”

Wilkerson, too, says he’s comfortable hitting leadoff. He has done it before, and though it’s not an ideal situation, he’s willing to do it again if asked.

“The key to moving to a new spot in the lineup is not trying to do too much,” Wilkerson said. “If he switches me there, I’m not going to change my approach to hitting. I’m going to go up there, try to get my pitch and try to hit the ball hard. And hopefully I’ll get some walks on top of it.”

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